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Combat experience spurs student’s artistic and theological journey

by Keith Barber

The women are cast in a warm glow, vessels of dignity and courage — either ancient or timeless, depending on one’s angle of view. They are flawed beings each in their own way, but blessed protagonists in God’s drama.

Greensboro College student Natasha Schoonover is here to rescue the more infamous women of the Bible from disrepute and obscurity.

“A lot of my artwork is reinterpreting stories in the Bible in a way that’s positive for women,” says the painter, a Blowing Rock native and combat veteran of the Iraq war with plans to study theology.

Paintings of women from the Bible will be hanging in the Anne Rudd Galyon Gallery in the Cowan Humanities Building through Feb. 26 as part of Schoonover’s senior exhibit, “A Living Tradition.”

The story of Hagar — a slave, the second wife of Abraham and considered to be a kind of mother to Islam — resonates with Schoonover.

“God called her name,” the painter says. “She was the first to name God: ‘One Who Sees.’ ‘There is no slavery,’ God says. ‘I see everyone. I love everyone.’” Growing up in Blowing Rock and then finding her way in the world as a young woman, Schoonover knew what it meant to be cast aside by society. She describes herself as a “black sheep” in school, a D-student challenged by dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder whose instructors gave up on teaching her anything and instead left her alone to draw.

“When I went to Iraq, He called me by name,” Schoonover says. “He called my name. He said, ‘There’s something better for you.’” She was a truck driver, one of three women in her platoon and the only female in her unit during her 13-month tour, which concluded in 2004.

“You’ve heard about ‘hillbilly armor,’” she says. “We were the hillbillies without the armor.” She often drove with a sandbag in her lap. She wrote home to get advice on armor-izing vehicles, and her unit welded steel plates on the sides of their Humvees. Seated in the middle of the tranquil gallery in the heart of Greensboro College’s pastoral campus, she flips through folders of photos on her laptop, lingering for a moment on an image she captured from the front windshield of the Humvee showing a black plume of smoke from an IED explosion a hundred feet or so up the road.

Death was all around. With a full-ride scholarship to attend Duke Divinity School in the fall, the Greensboro College senior and former soldier holds the memory as vividly as if it had transpired the day before. She thinks about dragonflies, larvae that emerge from the mud and transform into majestic creatures.

She recalls that 50 to 100 trucks were waiting to move through a narrow gate outside of Camp Speicher north of Baghdad. The platoon had taken considerable mortar fire from insurgents in white Toyota pickups who stalked the highway, and a couple soldiers, including a female, had perished. An attack by daisy-chain, propane-tank IED attack had wrought even deadlier results.

“A lot of us had gotten the sense that one of us wasn’t going to make it,” Schoonover says. “Here, when you get up in the morning and you feel a little sick, you say, ‘I don’t want to go to work today.’ When you wake up in a war, you say, ‘I don’t want to die today.’” She distinctly remembers the moment when she received her call to ministry.

“Millions of dragonflies had settled on our trucks, on the antennas,” Schoonover recalls. “They were settled on soldiers’ arms. We all experienced it together. No matter how far away from home, we knew God was here. I’ve never felt so at peace before or since. I knew I would be coming home.”

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